<Book Review>
(Re)Constructing Maternal Performance in Twentieth-Century American Drama
L. Bailey McDaniel
[New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 240 pp.]

Issues of maternity and maternal identity have been thoroughly considered in fields of Women and Gender Studies. However, even though we can find, in Western theatre, depictions of motherhood that defy stereotypical maternal traits as far back as ancient Greece – Oedipus Rex’s Jocasta, for example; or the matricidal rage of Medea – examinations into the identity of the mother (and of “staged motherhood”) are still “largely absent” in American drama, argues L. Bailey McDaniel in (Re) Constructing Maternal Performance in Twentieth-Century American Drama.

In this necessary, but potentially overreaching, monograph, McDaniel attempts to explore how race, class, gender and sexuality influence the “cultural rubrics of maternity,” analyzing how these “socially constructed subjectivities” may sustain or oppose “hegemonic social organizations” based on the aforementioned categories – and considering examples found in the past one hundred years of American drama and performance (3). McDaniel argues that not only we can find in modern American drama examples of “alternative maternity” but, also, that modern American drama often uses these to resist “sociopolitical oppression and constraints of identity” (4). Using as methodology “feminist materialist paradigms of analysis”, she examines these divergent mothering constructs, considering their context and how “canonical and peripheral” texts from the period “articulate the historical and social variations and hierarchies within mothering,” as these narratives of maternity may engage the oppression of marginalized groups (“whether marginality is experienced by the maternal subject him/herself, or an Other whose subjugation is facilitated by this notion of motherhood”) (11).

In chapter one, McDaniel offers a reevaluation of Rachel Crothers dubious status as a feminist playwright, considering the zeitgeist of her time and the “New Woman identity” in relation to motherhood as depicted in Crothers plays. In addition, McDaniel compares Crothers to Frank Ware (the protagonist in A Man’s World, who, like Crothers, is a “white, upper-middle-class artist-activist New Woman”), examining both Frank’s character and Ann Herford’s in He and She as useful “alternative models of motherhood vis-ŕ-vis a gender-neutral understanding of reproduction and nurturance” (12). Interestingly, Crothers work has been dismissed in the past as not feminist or political enough due to her (and her characters’) “unchallenged privileged” and potential “nod” to “1920s eugenics discourses” (12). Moreover, while McDaniel provides, in all of her four chapters, extensive historical references to support the claims she is making about the productions she is analyzing, her first chapter is, perhaps, the one where she accomplishes her methodological objectives of considering the “contextual realities of the playwright, the productions, and the sociopolitical moment” more successfully. She does that by offering an in depth analysis not only of Rachel Crothers’s immediate reality, but also of the material consequences related to Crothers’s socio-economic status and success as a playwright during the 1920s.

In her second chapter, McDaniel examines the politics of assimilation within Asian American communities, and the role of the mother as an “ethnic gatekeeper of racial identity and cultural continuity” as portrayed in Philip Kan Gotanda’s family drama, The Wash (13). According to McDaniel, Gotanda’s characters exemplify how “conflated” and (often) “conflicting” gender and race constructs can “find focus” in maternal performance. Gotanda’s mother role is the one who “absorbs and rearticulates the conundrums – as well as posits the solutions – for a people haunted by (…) memories of home-country internment and displacement, concepts of ‘failed’ and racially informed masculinity” and a number of other concerns and fears regarding the endurance of their culture and traditions (13).

Still considering assimilation anxieties, in chapter three, McDaniel considers the historically constructed image of the mammy – the “asexual, overtly nurturing subject-of-color who puts her/his own mothering on hold while caring for a white employer’s family” – as depicted in three different plays. McDaniel argues that the characters in Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change, Cheryl West’s Jar the Floor, and Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy try to “resituate” the performance of “black nurturance,” embodied by the mammy character. However, to McDaniel, even though examples from the aforementioned plays try to “complicate” modes of “black mothering,” they end up simply reordering them (due to their reliance on existing paradigms of domination, and on “articulations of essentialized, race-based sexuality”) (95).

Similarly to her assessment of Hoke (the man who drives Miss Daisy in Uhry’s play), McDaniel sees Manuel, in Cherríe Moraga’s Shadow of a Man, in chapter four, as a character who embodies a maternal construct that breaks with gender specific concepts of motherhood. McDaniel argues that Manuel’s maternal “hysteric” body (as a “failed patriarch” and “self-hating gay man”) facilitates a “queered/nonnormative understanding of maternal performance in what Moraga formulates as a race- and sexuality-based borderland or Frontera” (13). In addition, McDaniel argues that hysteria, as a type of “psychic-corporeal” response to oppression, can reside not only in the female body, but, also, in the “feminized/Otherized body” – exemplified by Manuel, whose “economic, ethnicized, and gender” failures place him in a “nonnormative” position (134). While McDaniel touches upon issues of sexuality, race and class in all four chapters, her fourth one is where the intersection of these subjectivities is better explored. The reference to Gloria Anzaldúa’s arguments in relation to Moraga’s play illuminate the perspective offered by McDaniel and gives the readers an in depth analysis of “theoretics of space” and its role in contesting (perceivably) naturalized “racial, gender, sexual and class ideologies” (144).

Ultimately, McDaniel’s book, though an ambitious project, offers valid and insightful perspectives regarding social constructed subjectivities in relation to the maternal figure as seen in modern American drama. Finally, while some of her arguments (such as her claims regarding a “falsely” assumed biological component of motherhood, or arguments concerning the intersection of race, gender, class, and sexuality and how they can complicate the concept of maternity) seem, potentially, common place to a Women and Gender Studies audience, theatre students interested in feminist drama and performance could benefit from reading this book.

     — Reviewed by Barbara Salvadori Heritage, University of Missouri

Barbara Salvadori Heritage is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Theatre at the University of Missouri. Her research interests include applied, experimental, and Latin American theatre; postcolonialism, intercultural performance, and directing. She is currently working on her dissertation about theatre in Brazil during the so-called “Years of Lead.”

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License..